22 tips for writing academic cvs and covering letters

One of the things that’s kept me from my blog in the past year or so – apart from moving jobs and cities and leading an eight-person research team – is that I’ve sat on half-a-dozen interview panels. The last one involved reading through a pdf of all the applications that was 1,100 pages long – just under 60 applications (I have heard of posts attracting nearly 100 applications). That’s an awful lot of blog posts.

Indeed, it’s an awful lot of anything. If you’re an applicant, it might almost make you pity the interview panellists. If you’re a panellist, it might also give you a lot of opinions on how to write – and how NOT to write – standout cvs and covering letters.

So, here is a blog post with some advice for you if you are writing up your cv and your covering letter for an academic job application. It’s a combination of things that have irritated me as I’ve read some applications, and things that I’ve appreciated as I’ve read others. 

I should note that this advice is based on job applications in the UK and in the social sciences. Conventions do vary between countries and disciplines, so my very first piece of advice is: get a draft of both your cv and your letter read by someone who has sat on a lot of interview panels in both the country and the discipline you’re applying to, if you can. 

general tips:

  • your cv lists information; your covering letter contextualises that information. So don’t repeat all the facts that are in your cv in your letter. Use your letter to explain what you have achieved and its significance, not to list what you have done.
  • remember your reader may not be online when they are ploughing through applications, so don’t put crucial information on pages that are only accessible via links.
  • don’t make the letter or cv too long. And no, I don’t know how long too long is, it depends on the job spec and what you’ve done. But I’d suggest three sides max for the letter.
  • only send what you are asked to. I don’t want to have to wade through (or print out) pages of student feedback, book manuscripts, certificates or powerpoint presentations, unless they are a necessary part of the selection process.
  • and remember, if I’ve got lots of applications to read for a competitive post, then at a certain point I’ll be looking (unfortunately) for reasons not to shortlist you – and if it’s not clear exactly what you’ve done, I will not be able to give you the benefit of the doubt. So be precise in both your letter and your cv.

cv tips:

  • list things in date order.
  • put most recent things first.
  • put page numbers on all your publications. It’s important that I know whether a publication is four-pages or twenty-pages. Being clear is better than sowing seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind, even it is a four-pager.
  • publications are either in print or online first (in which case, use the full citation [see above]), or they are ‘forthcoming’ (ie accepted for publication), or ‘accepted subject to major/minor revision’, or ‘under consideration’ (ie submitted but not yet reviewed). Other descriptions can be confusing – or seem evasive.
  • don’t bother listing publications ‘in preparation’ – unless they’ve been invited by a book/journal editor. Others might disagree here, but for me, anyone can say they’re preparing anything. I’d rather go an on actual achievements when assessing applications.
  • in your list of publications, separate out your books, papers, book chapters and ‘other’.
  • in your list of talks, distinguish between invited talks and others.
  • descriptions of grants should include the funder, the dates of the funding period, the amount of funding awarded, and your precise role in the project. Again, even if you only made the tea, I’d rather know that than have to guess or wonder if something is being glossed over. (And tea-making is important to teamwork…) 
  • do not mention the REF in relation to your publications. Currently, publications are not “REF eligible” in any sense other than they count as research – posts are eligible; and whatever stars your institution thinks your outputs are is irrelevant, it’s the REF panel that will decide. And in any case, the REF kind is only one kind of excellence. Don’t embed it in academic work any further than necessary.
  • if you’re going to mention the ‘impact’ of your work, make sure you understand the difference between ‘impact’ and ‘dissemination’ (in REF-speak). Both are important (see the previous point) but if you don’t know the difference between them, that suggests that you’re not sufficiently informed about the REF. Which you should be, not to exaggerate its importance but to acknowledge its actual signficance.
  • do mention any significant periods of leave you’ve had (parental, compassionate…). 
  • be careful when using metrics to describe what you’ve done. Quantity does not necessarily translate into quality.
  • do not list absolutely everything you have ever done. Quantity does not necessarily translate into quality.
  • once you’re going back more than 5 or 6 years, please be selective in what you list you’ve done.
  • personally, I find a photograph of you as part of your cv unnecessary.

covering letter tips:

  • the usual procedure in the UK is that each application is graded against the essential and desirable criteria in the job description. So, address each element of the essential and desirable characteristics of the post explicitly in your letter. Use subheadings to do this! – address each one systematically. Even if you don’t have a lot to say in one subsection, just a sentence will show that you’re paying attention.
  • particularly if you’re applying to a research-intensive department, say something specificabout your intellectual contribution in your cover letter. What is distinctive about what you do?
  • show that you know something about the department you’re applying to – at the very least, show that you’ve read the department’s website.

I hope some of that is useful. Good luck!

7 thoughts on “22 tips for writing academic cvs and covering letters

  1. Graat advice,; I agree with all of it but little mention of teaching (working with students, PhD supervision, programme /course leadership, curriculum development etc.? I guess that partly depends on the kind of post it is and perhaps reflects something about the priorities of ‘research intensive’ universities. In the institution I work in, lack of experience of, and enthusiasm for,,work with students would be a deal-breaker.

    • The reality is that most British universities make the majority of their income from undergraduate teaching [through rather complex formulas which include the student fees], and teaching is therefore going to be between 40% to 60% of a Lecturer job in terms of annual workload [there are one or two exceptions – I was a researcher when at Oxford, but I think there were Professors in Geog who did not teach undergrads! This was 10 years ago though. The Open University is obviously different in how it works]. This is a financial issue – Departments are threatened if they do not bring in teaching revenue. So a common mistake in applying for a standard lecturing position is to prioritise the listing of personal research achievements and leave little space for teaching achievements, philosophy, potential contributions etc., which requires looking at the curriculum and how you could contribute. Teaching is even more important for an application to a North American public university, where [in contrast to UK] a standard load of between 3 and 7 classes a year can be expected [4 when I was at Arizona] and the interview often includes giving a lecture. This does not vary much by rank. So there are huge differences just between US and UK. One strange thing is that when I assess applications for full professor promotion in the US as external assessor, we are not required to assess teaching [I always try to]. But we are in the UK.

  2. Dear Dr Awol Alo,
    Thank you for the tips and always appriciate your critical and unbaised views!! Keep it up with your professional integrity.

  3. Personally I do look up candidate’s key publications and read them – so yes, reading applicant files can take ages. Because my philosophy is if we are going to break the commercially-dominated publication system of neoliberal universities and their hiring policies, we should reward socially just publishing, which may mean publishing in less ‘prestigious’ outlets and def. open access. However the majority of senior profs I know tend to look for Annals/Transactions/Society and Space etc. etc. articles as some sort of mark of quality on a cv. Personally, I am happy if really good work has been published elsewhere, for valid reasons . And I check by reading it. Obviously, this is reflecting my personal philosophy of academic life and publishing – but it also allows candidates a chance if they do not fit the standard expectations for employment in research orientated British human geography.

  4. Thanks for these comments – all really useful. I would say though that the blog post wasn’t about ‘how to write applications for academic jobs’ – that would raise many of the issues in these comments, and some more! It was just a few tips about cvs, covering letters, and the relation between them. (Of course, if the ‘essential characteristics’ list for a job includes teaching then there should be a substantial section in the covering letter about that – under the subheading ‘teaching’.)

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